Michael Mann films have always been about restraint and precision and this was never more evident than in Thief. Mann made his big screen directing debut with this 1981 film which sees James Caan as a career criminal whose well planned existence comes under threat when he falls in love and decides to make the ever elusive ‘one last score’. Thief surely ranks alongside Heat as the quintessential Michael Mann film. The neon-drenched visuals and electronic score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream) create a dream-like energy and you can clearly see how this helped inspire Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.
James Cann has never been better in the role of Frank, the structured criminal who keeps his life moving like clockwork. Caan brings a world weariness to the character, a tiredness that is hidden by his outward strength. It may seem like one of Caan’s trademark tough guy roles but Mann’s script helps to give him a humanity that is often missing from crime movies. Caan was never this hot again and it would take until Misery, almost a decade later, for him to match the fire of his performance here. Mann packs Thief with a strong supporting cast including Dennis Farina, James Belushi and William Petersen, Tuesday Weld and Willie Nelson, who all add to the realism that the director instills in every aspect of the film.
Mann, like Thief’s main character, Frank, is a man who needs specific detail and planning and this is evident in every aspect of the film. From the opening heist sequence to Caan’s line delivery, there’s a serous amount of detail woven through the film’s two hour running time. However, this accuracy doesn’t get in the way of the Thief’s style, which Mann would hone three years later in TV’s Miami Vice.
Thief isn’t an all guns blazing cops and robbers drama. It’s a thoughtful and direct crime movie, with a great lead performance from star James Caan. It sets up the themes that Michael Mann would continue visiting throughout his career (masculinity, crime, cities, precision), which shows that Mann was fully formed as a filmmaker from the get-go. This is a quality Mann-made film.